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Theory: What was the 'Soviet' system?

PART 1.  IN WHAT SENSE (IF ANY) WAS THE ‘SOVIET’ SYSTEM CAPITALIST?

Introduction

For two centuries the main stream of Marxian discourse has focused on criticism of ‘private enterprise’ capitalism from the perspective of its negation in a general conception of socialism (which I do not distinguish from communism). Let me call this ‘the capitalism-socialism paradigm’.

The appearance of a previously unknown ‘Soviet’ [1] social system (eventually in a range of variants) challenged this paradigm. Marxian socialists responded to the challenge in one of three ways:

The most common response was to accept the new system as ‘socialism’ (now meaning a lower phase of the collectivistic post-capitalist society, the word ‘communism’ being reserved for the higher phase) or as a transitional system in between capitalism and socialism.

An alternative response was to interpret the new system as a modified form of capitalism – new only superficially but not in fundamentals.

Although these two responses implied diametrically opposed political stances, they were alike in the sense that both preserved the capitalism-socialism paradigm intact. In terms of concepts these were conservative responses. 

The third kind of response was to interpret the new system as something fundamentally new rather than as some variety of ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’. The resulting theories generally stressed the concept of ‘bureaucracy’ (e.g., ‘bureaucratic collectivism’). [2]

In this first part of a three-part essay, I explore the meaning of the terms capital and capitalist in Marx’s thought. In particular, I draw a distinction between broader and narrower usages of these terms. This enables me to consider in what sense (if any) the ‘Soviet’ system was capitalist.

In Part 2, I similarly investigate the meaning of the term communist in Marx’s thought and discuss in what sense (if any) the ‘Soviet’ system was communist?

The terms ‘capital’ and ‘capitalist’ in Marx

In most contexts Marx uses ‘capital’ in the sense of ‘self-expanding value’, where ‘value’ means exchange value (not use value). The value that constitutes capital takes various forms, including money capital, means of production (fixed capital) and commodities serving as production inputs (circulating capital). Capital is constantly changing from one form to another.

The expansion or accumulation of capital is driven by competition among capitalists or ‘capitals’ (separate units of capital). These capitals may be individual capitalists or corporations – or, at a higher level, groups of capitalists associated through the state as national capitals. Capitals compete to sell commodities at a profit in the market. Profit has its origin in surplus value extracted through the exploitation of wage labor. It is the goal of production and the source of increments to the accumulating stock of capital. 

These then are the basic features of what I call the ‘standard model’ of the functioning of the capitalist mode of production. Marx and the Marxians elaborate the model in much greater detail, but this should suffice for my purposes.

Note that this model does not assume private (in the sense of non-state) ownership of the means of production. It remains essentially unchanged when some or even all corporations are taken into state ownership, provided that the managers who run the state corporations on behalf of the state continue to pursue the same goal by the same means. It is no more problematic to call this ‘state capitalism’ than it is to call capitalism dominated by corporations ‘corporate capitalism’.State and non-state capitals may coexist in a single ‘mixed’ capitalist economy. [3] It is also possible to conceive of a fully state-capitalist economy in which all firms are owned by the state but compete with one another in the same way as any other type of capitalist firm. [4]

However, there are two contexts in which Marx uses the terms ‘capital’ and ‘capitalist’ but the standard model clearly does not apply.

The first of these contexts is that of the period when ‘capital comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore’ – the era of the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. This embryonic capital expands not by exploiting wage labor but by dispossessing, plundering and enslaving peasants at home and native peoples in the colonies.

Two forms taken by the primitive accumulation of capital were chattel slavery in the Americas and serfdom in early modern Russia. The American slave plantation and the Russian serf estate, which persisted unreformed until the mid-nineteenth century, were already basically capitalist enterprises, producing for domestic and world markets. In that respect they differed fundamentally from ancient slavery and medieval serfdom. [5] The standard model, which presupposes the exploitation of wage labor by capital, must at least be modified (if not jettisoned) to accommodate these ‘peculiar institutions’.

The second context in which the standard model does not apply is Marx’s discussion of ‘crude communism’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. [6] He uses this term to refer to the conception of a future society held by certain egalitarian thinkers – notably, the late 18th-century French revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf. Under crude communism, as Marx interprets it, ‘the category of worker is not done away with but extended to all’, while ‘the community [becomes] the universal capitalist’. Marx explains that ‘capital’ here means ‘the acknowledged universality and power of the community’.

Of what use is the standard model in understanding this communal ‘capitalism’? Here we have no competition among separate capitals, because capital as a whole belongs to the community. We do not even have classes, because all are ‘workers’ receiving equal wages and all participate in ‘the power of the community’. In formal terms, Marx’s ‘crude communism’ is not far removed from the definition of socialism used by the World Socialist Movement (‘common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by and in the interest of the community as a whole’). What nonetheless makes it a special form of capitalism is the philosophical attitude of members of the community toward themselves, one another and their environment – an attitude that generates the oppression of the individual and the continued exploitation of nature [7] by a reified ‘collective being’.     

It is not clear whether and under what circumstances Marx thought that ‘crude communism’ might be established in reality. He describes it as ‘regression to the simplicity of the man who has few needs and who has not only failed to go beyond private property but has not yet even reached it’; this might imply that an attempt at ‘crude communism’ could arise out of a successful insurrection by impoverished masses under material and cultural conditions insufficiently developed for ‘refined communism’.

Broader and narrower senses of ‘capital’

To me this suggests the need to distinguish among three successively broader senses of ‘capital’ (capitalist, capitalism). Capitalism in the narrowest sense is a system that fully fits the standard model described above. A somewhat broader usage will then encompass socio-economic forms that do not fit the model exactly but can be accommodated by a modified version of the standard model.

But how are we to conceptualize ‘capitalism’ in the broadest sense? My suggestion is that we define it as a socio-economic system dominated by a powerful dynamic of ‘self-expansion’ (or accumulation) of wealth, measured in some fetishized quantitative unit. The presence of such a powerful expansionary dynamic qualifies a society as broadly capitalist irrespective of the exact mechanism by which the dynamic operates, how wealth is owned or controlled, and the unit in which wealth is measured.

No doubt other definitions would merit consideration. I choose this particular definition for two reasons. First, the self-expansionary dynamic seems to me to be the central element in Marx’s model of the functioning of capitalism, whether the standard model or a modified version. Second, this definition captures a very important feature that Western capitalism and the ‘Soviet’ system shared and that marked them as segments of a single world civilisation despite important differences in their modes of production. [8]

Marxian theories of the ‘Soviet’ system: content and labels

Here I wish to make a general point. There is no close correspondence between the content of theories of the ‘Soviet’ system and the labels they attach to that system. Advocates of essentially the same theory may use several different labels, while the same label may be used by advocates of several different theories. For substantive understanding it is content that matters, not labels. Labels matter too, but only insofar as one label may be more effective than another in conveying a given content.

Among writers who label the ‘Soviet’ system ‘state capitalist’ there are advocates of three different theories:

* Some interpret the ‘Soviet’ system as ‘capitalist’ in a broad sense without trying to apply the standard model to it. Examples are Paul Mattick and Andrei Zdorov. [9]

* Others try to apply the standard model to the ‘Soviet’ system by treating entire national economies as giant capitalist corporations owned by the central ruling group (e.g.: USSR, Inc.). [10]

* Yet others try to apply the standard model to the ‘Soviet’ system by treating individual enterprises as separate ‘capitals’ owned in practice by their directors.

Structure and functioning of the ‘Soviet’ economy

I cannot adequately describe the structure and functioning of the ‘Soviet’ economy here, but I need to make a few basic points. [11]

This was a ‘command economy’. Although the direct managers of means of production – the directors of industrial enterprises and the chairmen of collective farms – were allowed some room for maneuver, they had to obey commands ‘from above’. For industrial managers the commands came from state bodies at three levels – ‘chief administrations’ responsible for sections of industries, ministries responsible for whole industries, and central agencies responsible for the whole economy (the Council of Ministers) or a certain aspect thereof (the State Planning Commission, State Supplies Commission, etc.). In agriculture the lower levels of the hierarchy were organized on a territorial basis (county, province etc.). [12] 

At least in formal terms, this was also a ‘planned economy’. [13] Quite detailed production plans were formulated and had to be followed (unless overruled for some reason by higher authority). Most important was the one-year plan, which was broken down by month; there were also five-year plans. Besides production targets, a plan specified the sources from which a particular enterprise was to be supplied with inputs (raw materials, spare parts etc.) and the places to which it was to send its output. Unlike a capitalist firm, it was not in a position to arrange these links itself, by negotiation with other enterprises of its own choosing.   

So ‘Soviet’ enterprises did not have the autonomy to engage in market competition (except for a marginal ‘gray market’ that played a stop-gap role). They did not compete with one another to sell their products in the market, because the allocation of output to other enterprises and to consumer outlets was set in advance.  

True, the ‘Soviet’ economy bore certain resemblances to capitalism. People worked for money wages and spent them on consumer goods to which prices were attached. Profits made by enterprises were calculated, and managers had their performance assessed to some extent on the basis of those profits. Money, wages, prices and profits are capitalist categories, surely?

In fact, these resemblances are less significant than they seem, or even misleading. Thus:

* Money as a universal means of exchange did not exist in the ‘Soviet’ economy. There were two non-interchangeable moneys, each serving a separate purpose – (1) the cash money distributed as wages and spent on consumer goods; (2) the non-cash money used to help monitor enterprises’ non-wage transactions. Neither of these moneys performed the central function that money possesses in capitalism.

* Wages and prices were set by the state and therefore did not indicate the presence of markets in labor power [14] and other commodities.

* Managers had their performance assessed and bonuses determined on the basis of production results. These results were measured by various ‘indicators’, which might be physical (e.g., total weight of output, number of items) or financial (e.g., profit, cost of production). But even when the key indicator was profit, the goal of production was not to maximize profit, but to fulfill the profit plan. [15]

In short, the standard model of capitalism cannot be applied to the ‘Soviet’ system by treating enterprises as competing capitals. [16] However, this still leaves open the possibility that the standard model might still be useable if we treat the whole ‘Soviet’ economy as a single capital – USSR, Inc.   

USSR, Inc.?

Once the ‘Soviet’ economy is viewed as a single giant corporation, the issues of its internal functioning become irrelevant to the question of whether or not it was capitalist. After all, the capitalist nature of a corporation like IBM or Texaco depends not on how it is organized internally, but on its participation in world market competition as a centre of profit making and capital accumulation.

Of course, there was fierce competition between the USSR and other states, and states too can be regarded as centres of capital accumulation. The question is: what sort of competition? There was competition in the military sphere, and therefore also in the technological sphere. There was political competition for spheres of influence. But these kinds of competition exist in any system of interacting states, whatever their modes of production. Such competition existed in the ancient world, for instance, or in the encounter between capitalist Britain and pre-capitalist imperial China.

In order to describe the USSR as capitalist in this sense, we would have to argue that the overriding goal of ‘Soviet’ economic activity was to compete successfully in export markets in order to reinvest the profits and accumulate capital – like the export-driven growth of the ‘Asian tigers’. But this would be greatly to exaggerate the importance of foreign trade for the USSR. ‘Soviet’ planners aimed in principle at autarky. While this ideal was never attained, foreign trade was confined to an auxiliary function in the service of the plan. Goods required by the plan that could not be produced at home were imported; exports were then geared to a level necessary to pay for the planned imports – and not maximized, as in export-driven growth.

I should enter a reservation here. I have been talking about the ‘Soviet’ economic system in its mature post-Stalin form. Foreign trade did play a more central role during the forced industrialisation of the 1930s, when Stalin relied heavily on machinery imports from the West, paid for by exports of grain while people were starving (as in the Irish potato famine). It is precisely in this period that we find the strongest parallels between the ‘Soviet’ system and capitalism, especially if we focus not on mature capitalism but on the phase of the primitive accumulation of capital, [17] which (as noted above) also does not fit the standard model. 

Cycles

One topic that highlights the inapplicability of the standard model of capitalism to the ‘Soviet’ economic system is the business cycle of alternate boom and crisis, which socialists have always rightly seen as one of the main evils of capitalism. Although there are different Marxian theories of the business cycle, it is at least clear that the standard model and its categories are helpful in thinking about this phenomenon.

The ‘Soviet’ system was not free of cyclical patterns, but they were cyclical patterns of a different type, associated with the planning cycle. One example was the intense economic activity (‘storming’) toward the end of a plan period, when everyone was working hard to fulfill the plan on time and get their bonuses for plan fulfillment, followed by the lull at the beginning of the next plan period, when everyone was recovering from ‘storming’ and waiting for the arrival of new supplies. There were also longer cycles associated with investment planning. But none of this bears the least resemblance to the capitalist business cycle. [18]

Expansionary dynamics

Whatever term we may eventually choose to describe the ‘Soviet’ system, it should acknowledge as clearly as possible both the fundamental differences that existed between it and capitalism (in the narrow sense) and the deep affinity that existed between the two systems as inherently expansionary industrial orders.

The expansionary dynamic of the ‘Soviet’ system came both from the top leaders, who saw themselves as engaged in long-term competition (though not primarily market competition) with the major capitalist states, and from lower levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy.

In the prewar period leaders of the USSR saw their state as being in competition mainly with Britain and later Germany (and in the east Japan). After 1945, and especially after Stalin’s death, the chief rival became the United States. Khrushchev called upon the country to ‘catch up with and overtake America’; under Brezhnev the goal was much more modest – not to fall even further behind the US.

A range of criteria were used to compare the USSR with its rivals, but great emphasis was placed on crude physical measures such as tonnes of steel produced. Such measures reflected the internal goals of ‘Soviet’ economic administration and became less and less relevant to the real power equation as technology developed. The Chinese leaders also attached enormous significance to steel tonnage: Mao’s goal in launching the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in 1959 was for China to catch up with and overtake Britain in steel output.

The expansionary pressure from lower levels was a result of the ‘empire building’ of managers seeking to enhance their own power, status and perquisites in (non-market) competition with one another for resources allocated from above. [19] The Hungarian economist Janos Kornai writes: ‘In the socialist economy decision-makers are motivated by a strong internal expansion drive on every level, from executives to shop foremen. The investment hunger is permanent and almost insatiable’. [20]  

From certain points of view, the fact that both systems were driven by some sort of powerful expansionary dynamic is much more important than the differences between the two dynamics. In particular, both expansionary dynamics had a devastating impact on the natural environment, which was taken into account neither in calculating the rate of profit nor in assessing the level of plan fulfillment.

PART 2. IN WHAT SENSE (IF ANY) WAS THE ‘SOVIET’ SYSTEM SOCIALIST?

Introduction

In Part 1 we considered in what sense the ‘Soviet’ system might be considered capitalist. The question in Part 2 is whether there is any sense in which that system might be considered socialist or communist. And just as I began Part 1 by clarifying the meanings of ‘capitalist’ (capital, capitalism), so it is now necessary to start by clarifying the meaning of ‘socialist’ (socialism) and ‘communist’ (commune, communism).

In this section of the article I view the ‘Soviet’ system from a new vantage point. In Part 1 the point of comparison was capitalism as analyzed by Marx – a system contemporaneous with the ‘Soviet’ system and similar in terms of production technology but dissimilar in structure. The point of comparison here will be a system that dates from an earlier epoch and had its basis in agriculture but was similar (though not, of course, identical) in structure – the system of state despotism that Marx called the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ (AMP). [21] 

So I shall be discussing the character of the AMP and its place in world history – in particular, the related questions of whether it was a ‘class society’ and whether it contained any elements that might be regarded as socialist or communist. This will prepare the ground for comparing the ‘Soviet’ system with the AMP and asking the same questions in relation to the ‘Soviet’ system. That will finally place us in a position to consider the relationship between the ‘Soviet’ system and socialism/communism.

The meaning of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’

The word ‘socialism’ was first used in its modern sense in France about 1830 in reference to the doctrine of Henri de Saint-Simon. [22] Subsequently it was applied to the ideas of Fourier, Owen, Lassalle, Marx, Engels, and many others. The common threads that linked all these thinkers were a focus on society (in contrast to liberal individualism) and advocacy of social ownership of the means of life, cooperation in place of competition, and production for use not for profit. Socialism was a reaction against the newly arisen order of capitalism, its negation and alternative.

In other respects, however, there were deep divisions among socialist thinkers. Some had frankly elitist and authoritarian conceptions of socialism. For Saint-Simon, in particular, socialism was a statist order, governed by an elite of industrial managers. Lassalle, whose ideas had at least as strong an influence on the German Social-Democratic Party as those of Marx, [23] also had a statist conception of socialism, inspired by the imperial ethos of Bismarckian Germany. Fourier had a much more libertarian approach. The mainstream of the social-democratic movement was in the middle of this spectrum, combining formal adherence to democracy with a cult of discipline and a tendency to dogmatism.

A neat example of the same division in the Anglo-Saxon world was the contrast between Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia Looking Backward (1888), with its military organization of labor, [24] and the arcadian vision of News from Nowhere (1890), which William Morris wrote as a conscious riposte to Bellamy.

Thus, it cannot be said that socialism originated as a fully democratic and libertarian doctrine and later degenerated. Rather, the tension between libertarian and authoritarian tendencies existed within socialism from the very start. Given this historical background, it seems arbitrary to call one strand ‘real’ or ‘true’ socialism and label the other ‘sham’. I prefer to define socialism in terms of the anti-capitalist ideas that are common to all these tendencies, while acknowledging the importance of the differences among them. (This still allows us to reject the socialist credentials of those who call themselves socialists but seek only to reform capitalism.)

A similar argument can be made regarding the term ‘communism’, which came into use in its modern sense about 1840, although the idea itself can be traced much further back – at least to Thomas More’s Utopia of 1518 and the ‘Digger’ and ‘True Leveler’ Gerard Winstanley (1609—1676). I might note that although Winstanley was undoubtedly progressive for his times his conception of communism was fairly authoritarian and the attempts of present-day libertarians to claim him as a precursor involve a considerable degree of self-deception. [25]

The character of the AMP

There is great diversity among the civilizations that have been described as ‘Asiatic’ or ‘semi-Asiatic’. The essential structure common to them all consisted of numerous local agrarian communes and – ‘towering above them’ – a centralized despotic state served by a hierarchy of bureaucrats.

The commune had its roots in the primitive communism of pre-state times. It was originally a self-enclosed and self-sufficient local community of social equals who exercised collective control over the land. That did not necessarily mean that the land was farmed collectively, though it might be; but even where farming was carried on by separate family households, the commune was free to allocate and reallocate land among the households on the basis of need. The rise of state power undermined the original autonomy and democracy of the commune, but rarely destroyed them completely.

Who ‘owned’ the land under this system? In a sense the land as well as the people belonged to the despot, because only practical considerations limited his power to extract resources from the land and levy forced labor (for armies and to build dikes, roads, walls, palaces, temples, pyramids, etc.). However, as the communes were mostly left to their own devices provided that they submitted to the state’s exactions, we might regard them as retaining some degree of ownership. It can also be argued that – in contrast to Roman antiquity, feudalism and capitalism – ownership and property are not relevant concepts for understanding the AMP.

What, if any, was the technological basis of the AMP? In his 1957 classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, Karl Wittfogel analyzed the AMP as a ‘hydraulic society’ – a system that arose in river valleys where periodic flooding and drought compelled the communes to pool their labor in order to build hydraulic works (dikes, dams, reservoirs, irrigation canals etc.). Designing these installations, coordinating their construction, and maintaining them were the crucial functions of the state bureaucracy.

The hydraulic theory can help to explain the appearance of the AMP in riverine civilizations such as Egypt, Sumeria and China, but obviously it is of no use in cases where the AMP arose on other types of terrain. In fact, the AMP assumed its ‘purest’ or most highly bureaucratized form in the Andean empire of the Incas. [26] The Inca empire was a total ‘command economy’: all production was managed by the bureaucracy; output was distributed from state storehouses in accordance with set rules (e.g., each peasant received two sets of clothing upon marriage); money was used only for foreign trade. The AMP in China, for example, was always much less centralized, with developed domestic trade.

Marx on the place of the AMP in world history

It is of interest to trace the evolution of Marx’s thinking concerning the place occupied by the AMP in world history. 

At first Marx listed the AMP as the first in a single sequence of four class societies, succeeded by the slave-holding society of Greco-Roman antiquity, then by feudalism and finally by capitalism. Marx referred to this single line of development of class society as ‘the socio-economic formation’.

Later, after closer study of the subject, Marx concluded that the AMP was not the first stage of the socio-economic formation, but rather the second stage, following primitive communism, in a quite separate line of development that he called the ‘archaic’ or ‘primary’ social formation.

In this view of the late Marx, the fate of the agrarian commune is very different in the two lines of development. The private property relations of the socio-economic formation are antagonistic to the commune and eventually destroy it. By contrast, the AMP and the commune are symbiotic: their interaction can continue until the entire formation is destroyed by some external force such as conquest or climatic disaster.  

Thus the late Marx brings the AMP closer to primitive communism and distances it from the sequence of class societies based on private property relations. This finds reflection in his view of the state. The state in the socio-economic formation is basically an ‘executive committee’ of the exploiting class. The state in the AMP, however, is:

a superstructure erected on the basis of directly communal property and the commune. The ruler is neither a private property owner nor a feudal lord but a personification of the collective, the personified single foundation of the commune. [27]

In effect, the late Marx no longer treats the AMP as a class society or its state as a class state. This state serves not an exploiting class but the communes, by performing a coordinating function that they are structurally unable to perform for themselves.

Nevertheless, many analysts of the AMP who take a broadly Marxist approach align do treat the AMP as a full-fledged class society in which the state bureaucracy (the mandarinate in China, let us say) is the ruling and exploiting class.

I am critical of both these positions. On the one hand, there is surely something metaphysical (idealist in the philosophical sense) in viewing the imposing edifice of the AMP state purely as an emanation of the local agrarian commune. And while hydraulic works may well be in the interests of the whole society, the same can hardly be said of some of the other state projects that devoured the labor of the common people – the temples, palaces, pyramids, etc. On the other hand, to call the state bureaucracy in the AMP a ruling class is to use this term in a special sense that ignores the supreme position of the despot, who enjoys unlimited power over the very lives of the members of this ‘ruling class’. We need a third position that recognizes the full distance separating the AMP both from primitive communism and from class societies based on private property relations. 

Did the AMP contain any ‘socialist’ elements?

Even if the AMP is defined as an exploitative class society, it cannot be denied that it contains certain elements that seem to have something ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ about them by contrast with class societies based on private property relations.

The first such element is the agrarian commune itself, which embodies a collective and egalitarian ethos at odds with the hierarchical and highly inegalitarian world of the despotic state.

The second quasi-socialist element is a paternalistic quality often if not always manifested by the ideology and practice of state administration. In Confucianism, for example, the state has a duty of benevolence toward the common people: its exactions should not be so heavy as to threaten their survival. The Pharaohs and the Incas stored food for distribution in the event of temporary or local crop failures. By contrast, the rulers of other class societies, by and large, have felt no responsibility for the fate of the lower orders.    

The connection between the ‘Soviet’ system and the AMP

There is an obvious family resemblance between the ‘Soviet’ system and the AMP as societies in which a state bureaucracy controls the main means of production. Even though the ‘Soviet’ system nowhere emerged directly out of the AMP, there are plausible grounds for positing an indirect connection. Russia and China both have a cultural legacy that is at least ‘semi-Asiatic’ and in both countries this legacy facilitated the consolidation of the ‘Soviet’ system – we need only recall how Chinese peasants worshipped the portrait of Mao as their new ‘emperor’. 

The possibility that the AMP might be revived in Russia in a new form was foreseen by Plekhanov (who did more than anyone else to make Marxist thought known in Russia). At the Bolshevik party congress of 1906, Plekhanov opposed Lenin’s call for nationalisation of the land on the grounds that it might lead to restoration of ‘our old semi-Asiatic order’:

Plekhanov was warning of the danger for Russia of despotic and bureaucratic collectivism à la Inca. Russian despotism had been built upon the binding of the peasant to the state. [28]

The striking parallelism between the ‘Soviet’ system and the AMP was one of the main reasons why Stalin banned all study of the AMP in the USSR or even references to the concept. [29] After Stalin’s death scholars were again permitted to study and discuss the AMP, but only as a specialized area of historical research – they were not allowed publicly to assert that the topic had any contemporary relevance. Privately, however, they were very interested in the issue of the connection between the AMP and the ‘Soviet’ system, as became clear when Gorbachev broadened the limits of free expression.

Andrei Zdorov describes the AMP as ‘state feudalism’: ‘Both the feudal and the capitalist class formation can exist either in private-property or in state form’ [30]. Just as he expands the meaning usually given to ‘capitalism’ in order to include the ‘Soviet’ system as ‘state capitalism’, so he expands the meaning of ‘feudalism’ to include the AMP as ‘state feudalism’. At the same time, the use in both cases of the qualifier ‘state’ highlights the parallel between the ‘Soviet’ system and the AMP.

A more radical approach is that of Yuri Semyonov, the most original and prolific contemporary Russian Marxist historian. [31] Semyonov views the AMP and the ‘Soviet’ system as merely two distinct forms of a single ‘politary’ mode of production – its ‘agro-politary’ and ‘industrial-politary’ forms. Both forms of the politary mode of production are marked by ‘class-wide private property’ as distinct from the ‘individual private property’ of the slave-holding, feudal and capitalist systems. Semyonov analyzes property relations in the AMP in terms of ‘two storeys’ – the commune and the state. This seems a more balanced approach than that of the late Marx. 

‘Soviet’ society and modern conceptions of socialism

Above I noted the presence of two ‘quasi-socialist’ elements in the AMP. Given the parallels between the AMP and the ‘Soviet’ system, can we find any corresponding elements in the ‘Soviet’ system?

The agrarian commune was already a thing of the past in Russia when the ‘Soviet’ system took shape, but its psychology had not completely disappeared. This may help to explain the ‘socialist’ qualities that some observers have detected in the basic cell of the ‘Soviet’ system – the work collective. It may also be relevant that in the mature system of the post-Stalin period there was a high level of job security and low turnover, with the same people working together over many years. This led (in varying degrees) to genuine solidarity and mutual aid  –  as, for instance, when people got together to help a colleague move to a new home. Many people in the former USSR now bemoan the loss of this feeling of closeness within the work collective, however stifling and oppressive they may have found it at the time. A case in point is the Russian writer Alexander Zinoviev, who placed the work collective at the centre of his analysis of Soviet society.

The nature of a particular work collective depended to a considerable extent on the personality of the person appointed to manage it. An enterprise or institute director who was loyal to “his” collective could (up to a point) defend the interests of “his people” – protect them from persecution, conceal their shortcomings, resist excessive demands from above, etc. This enabled the collective to develop a measure of autonomy. The authorities often brought in someone from outside as director for the purpose of restoring effective control over a collective, though this did not always work as the new director might “go native”. If all else failed, however, they could – and sometimes did – use their power to break up a collective altogether.  

Thus in both the AMP and the ‘Soviet’ system there was tension as well as symbiosis between the collectives at the base and the superstructure of the bureaucratic states.

The rulers of the ‘Soviet’ system also shared the paternalistic approach of their AMP counterparts – in some countries and at some periods. When the ‘Soviet’ system was dismantled in Russia, ordinary people felt abandoned. Oppressive as the system might be, there were people “up there” who were responsible for making sure that your most basic needs were met. Now suddenly you were on your own. The same shock was experienced by many migrants from state-capitalist to private-capitalist countries (from the USSR to the USA, from Vietnam to Hong Kong, etc.).

It bears emphasis that only the mature form of the ‘Soviet’ system exhibited this paternalism. It would be absurd to talk about paternalism during the periods of forced industrialisation in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, when millions perished in man-made famines and at forced labour. Both Stalin and Mao exported grain while ‘their own people’ were starving. Both were determined to build up heavy industry at any cost in (non-market) competition with rival capitalist powers (see Part 1).   

Thus, there are both significant connections and major differences among the AMP, the ‘Soviet’ system and authoritarian tendencies in modern socialist thought. The differences stand out much more sharply when we compare the AMP or the ‘Soviet’ system with democratic and libertarian tendencies in socialist thought, but even in this case let us not be too hasty in dismissing the possibility of some sort of connection out of hand.

Notes

 [1] ‘Soviet’ is just a convenient label. At this stage I do not wish to prejudge the character of the system. The inverted commas are to acknowledge the fraudulent nature of the claim that the system was based on the power of workers’ councils (Soviets).

 [2] The theory of the ‘Soviet’ system as ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ is often attributed to the ex-Trotskyist Max Shachtman, but an earlier theory of this kind was that of Bruno Rizzi. His book, first published privately in 1939, is available in English under the title The Bureaucratization of the World. The USSR: Bureaucratic Collectivism (Tavistock Publications, 1985).

 [3] See Chapter 2 (‘State Capitalism in the West’) in Adam Buick and John Crump, State Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management (Macmillan, 1986).

 [4] Historical approximations to this situation were the industrial sector of the Soviet economy under the New Economic Policy in the 1920s and the Hungarian economy following introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1968.

 [5] See: Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Yale University Press, 1987).

 [6] In the section entitled ‘Private property and communism’. An alternative English-language term for this is ‘vulgar communism’.

 [7] ‘The relationship of private property persists as the relationship of the community to the world of things.’

 [8] Paul Mattick’s definition, though somewhat narrower, also serves this purpose: a ‘capitalist’ community is one that ‘believes in steadily increasing its wealth-creating capacity by a constant investment of resources in productive capital’ (Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy, 1969, Ch. XX; http://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1969/marx-keynes/ch20.htm). The last phrase is circular (defining ‘capitalism’ by reference to ‘capital’) but can be omitted as superfluous.

 [9] See note 8. It is significant that Mattick uses the terms ‘state-capitalist’ and ‘state-capitalism’ (with a hyphen) to emphasize that ‘capitalism’ and ‘state-capitalism’ are distinct though kindred systems.

Andrei Zdorov lives in Odessa, Ukraine. See his book: State Capitalism and the Modernisation of the Soviet Union: A Marxist Analysis of Soviet Society (in Russian; Moscow: URSS, 2006).

 [10] See Chapter 4 in Buick and Crump, op. cit. This also seems to have been the viewpoint of the Polish dissidents Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski in An Open Letter to the Party (Socialist Review Publishing, 1966). However, their definition of the goal of economic activity as ‘production for the sake of production’ (as distinct from ‘production for the sake of profit’ in non-state capitalism) implies a broader concept of capitalism.

 [11] Two introductory texts are: Alec Nove, The Soviet Economic System (Allen & Unwin, successive editions) and David A. Dyker, The Soviet Economy (Crosby Lockwood Staples, 1976).

For the sake of brevity I ignore similarly organized economies outside the Soviet Union, though some of them had highly distinctive features at various periods (e.g., Cuba, China, North Korea, East Germany). 

 [12] For several years under Khrushchev industry was also organized on a territorial basis, through regional ‘councils of national economy’. To keep the picture simple, I omit consideration of the role played in economic management by the Communist Party bureaucracy.

 [13] Some analysts argue that the planning process did not amount to ‘real’ planning and prefer the term ‘administered economy’.

 [14] Enterprises were able to compete for labor to some extent, through non-wage benefits that they were able to offer.

 [15] More precisely, to overfulfill the plan but only a little – not by ‘too much’. While overfulfilling the plan by a substantial margin would increase the manager’s bonus, it would also reveal that the enterprise had been concealing its full capacity, with the result that uncomfortably high plan targets would be set for the following year.

 [16] Nor could other administrative units – ministries, say – be treated as competing capitals, for analogous reasons (although I am unaware of anyone having tried to do this).

 [17] Indeed, Russian economists at the time made use of the mind-boggling concept ‘socialist primitive accumulation’!

 [18] This is not to deny that the ‘Soviet’ economy, to the extent that it interacted with the economy of the capitalist part of the world, was affected by the business cycles occurring in that economy. But it cannot be concluded from this, as do Buick and Crump (pp. 95-6), that the USSR was fully integrated into a single world capitalist economy. If it had been so integrated, the decade of its fastest industrial growth (starting in 1929) could not have coincided with the Great Depression in the West.

 [19] This kind of competitive expansionary pressure is also easily observed inside bureaucratic structures in the capitalist economy, though there it is constrained by the counter-pressure to cut costs.

 [20] Janos Kornai, Contradictions and Dilemmas: Studies on the Socialist Economy and Society, MIT Press 1986, p. 107). I beg the reader not to be distracted from the substance of Kornai’s observation by his misuse of the word ‘socialist’.    

 [21] Marx’s focus on Eurasia – India, China and Russia in particular – led him to call this system ‘Asiatic’ despite the occurrence of the same system in pre-conquest America (especially the Maya, Inca and Anasazi civilizations). The AMP label has stuck due partly to inertia and Marx-worship, partly to the difficulty of agreeing on a substantive (rather than geographical) name for the system.

 [22] One source gives 1827 as the date of first use, another source 1832. The person who introduced ‘socialism’ was Pierre Leroux, but Leroux was a publicist for Saint-Simon and used the word to describe his ideas.

 [23] Arguably Lassalle’s influence was stronger, as reflected in the SDP’s concept of the People’s State (Volkstaat), which was not abandoned despite Engels’ criticism (in Critique of the Erfurt Program). 

 [24] Bellamy envisions industrial hierarchies organized as ‘armies’ – one for men and the other for women. He developed his utopia further in a second book: Equality (1898).

 [25] Should you doubt this, please read Winstanley’s Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652). Pay special attention to Chapter 4: ‘What Are the Officers’ Names in a Free Commonwealth?’ (bilderbog.org/land/lawofree.htm).

 [26] This is at least true for the well-understood cases. Another ‘pure’ case may be the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete.

 [27] On the evolution of Marx’s view of the AMP, see the articles by Vadim Mezhuev and Andrei Maidansky in the Autumn 2012 issue of Russian Studies in Philosophy (published by M.E. Sharpe of New York). The passage cited is from Maidansky.

 [28] Milorad Draskovic, Marxism in the Modern World (Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 63.

 [29] This was probably the most important reason, but there were others. In particular, theories of the AMP were associated, rightly or wrongly, with the idea that having an ‘Asiatic’ legacy made a country especially backward, and this offended nationalist sensibilities in both Russia and China.

 [30] Andrei Zdorov, State Capitalism (see [9]), p. 21.

 [31] For a survey of Semyonov’s life and work, see Vikipedia (the Russian-language Wikipedia). Semyonov reached his conception of ‘Soviet’ society as ‘politary’ (or ‘neo-politary’) at the beginning of the 1970s, although the conception does not appear in his official publications. 

 

 

 

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